HARKER HEIGHTS — Military veterans in Central Texas unable to live on their own now have the option to live in a permanent home with a caregiver.

The Central Texas Veterans Health Care System on Thursday celebrated the opening of its first medical foster homes for veterans at a 100-year-old house on Stillhouse Lake Drive in Harker Heights.

Tiffany Love, foster home coordinator with the Department of Veterans Affairs, said the local program began to take shape about seven months ago.

“This is really a dream come true,” she said. “This provides them a great alternative so they can have an adopted family and maintain being part of a community.”

The VA’s Medical Foster Home Program began in Arkansas in 2005. Today, the program has 84 homes that provide nursing home-level services to more than 1,700 veterans across the country, in Guam and Puerto Rico. Besides Heights, other Texas homes are in Hewitt, Smithville, Dallas and San Antonio, Love said.

Foster home caregivers provide furnished rooms and 24-hour care to veterans. The VA also provides financial assistance for qualified veterans who want to participate in the program.

“We never want to take away our veterans’ independence, and what they have to offer still matters,” Love said. “Veterans get all of their meals provided, all transportation, medication management, bathing, dressing, toileting, grooming, anything that they need.”

Becoming a caregiver isn’t a simple process, Love said. Candidates must endure multiple home inspections and federal background checks. Once approved, they are allowed to take in up to three veterans per home. In exchange for permanent care in the home, veterans pay an average of $1,500 to $3,000 monthly depending on the level of care needed, according to the VA.

“Our hope is that these veterans will live here through the end of their lives,” she said. “So we are looking for people who have heart and care about our veterans and have medical training.”

Valencia “Val” Mullen, 53, is a supervisor at the Heights foster home. She started her career working in nursing homes and was a caregiver for 20 years.

“It’s a dream I never thought I would see happen,” she said. “Working in the nursing home and seeing a lot of things that I really couldn’t control, I always used to say I wish I had a house where they can do what they want.”

Michael Shield, 64, served in the Air Force for four years and is now battling leukemia. He lived in the VA Hospital in Temple before moving to the Heights foster home Thursday, he said, adding that he looks forward to making new friends at his new home.

“I was very excited to be part of this,” he said. “It took about a month to work out all the details.”

Virginia Hernandez, 57, moved into the foster home Jan. 28. She served in the Navy for four years as a third-class storekeeper. Diabetic and recovering from breast cancer, Hernandez said the program allowed her to regain her independence.

“At first I didn’t know if I was going to like it, but I fell in love with it,” she said. “The people here are so nice, and it’s like having a second family.”

Before she relocated, Hernandez was living with her sister and brother-in-law in Temple, an arrangement she wasn’t always comfortable with.

“When she was staying with us, you could tell she didn’t like always depending on us,” said Mary Champion-Smith, Hernandez’s sister. “It looks like she has peace on her face (now), and before she was so stressed out.”

Harker Heights Mayor Mike Aycock said the program is a nice addition to the community.

“I can’t think of a more tranquil and nice spot to have it,” he said. “Harker Heights is a big supporter of the veterans and we applaud the effort.”

For more information about the veterans foster home program, call Love at (254) 742-4927.

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